Black Friday (or is it Thursday?) is finally here after weeks up build-up. Apologies for putting a damper on the excitement, but it’s pretty depressing to know that people rushed through Thanksgiving dinner last night just to get out and fight over deals on cut-rate TVs and cheap point-and-shoots. For quality gear, the deals aren’t even necessarily that great.
Yet people still get whipped into a frenzy over the promise of incredible prices. Black Friday chaos has killed people. Last year, some people were pepper sprayed while others sprayed bullets. How is that even possible? Which weird, rage-inducing evolutionary strings does the Black Friday phenomenon pluck?
Suicidal lunatic? Well, no. Just not particularly smart. Via.
The most overused animal comparison for large groups mindlessly chasing each other to their own peril is the lemming. Lemmings, as we’ve all heard one time or another, are so easily whipped into a frenzy during their migrations that they’ll even run after each other as they jump off cliffs to their death. This reeks of Black Friday behavior: people mindlessly migrating to the land of plenty, killing themselves and others along the way.
But the actual myth of lemmings revolves around them purposely killing themselves, potentially to save more food for others. That sounds like decidedly not Black Friday behavior. It’s also still nothing but a myth. Instead of periodic group suicides, the extreme volatility of lemming populations is explained by the perils of their migrations. When one local population gets large, the group takes off for a new location in one big rush, which can include the aforementioned jumping off cliffs and swimming across large bodies of water.
These daunting migrations can decimate lemming populations, but once the few lemmings that survive set up camp in a new location, they take advantage of their prodigious reproductive capabilities and send the population skyrocketing again. It’s a never-ending cycle driven and regulated by the need for resources. There is one element there that does ring true when compared to Black Friday: lemmings (and numerous other animals) undertake an extremely perilous migration in search of resources.
At its root, that’s what Black Friday is really about. Like birds flying south for the winter, it’s an annual migration—in this case, to malls rather than Mexico—to take advantage of a perceived glut of resources, triggered in this case by massive advertising campaigns rather than shifting weather. But ‘perceived’ is the key word there. Birds brave a long, difficult journey to find a winter home full of food, warmth and easy living. While that’s what a lot of people do for Thanksgiving, that’s far from the case of Black Friday, where the trip is a climate-controlled cruise and the end destination is a consumerist war zone. If birds are moving to the land of plenty and easy living, why do Black Friday shoppers purposely head out to fight over a few potential deals?
Birds risk death by migrating because staying home means even more likely death. Does that sound at all like Black Friday?
It comes down to the perceived value of those items on sale. We talked about perceived value last week when talking about luxury, but suffice to say that in situations where something thinks a thing is worth a lot more than it is, they’re bound to do some crazy things.
Black Friday is traditionally the day that all major retailers held sales to jump-start the holiday shopping season, which a large bulk of their income comes from—hence “Black” Friday: it starts the part of the year where retailers claw their balance sheets back into the black. But, with booming online sales keeping people out of stores, retailers have taken advantage of modern cross-platform advertising to blow Black Friday up into an end-all price apocalypse. The ideal shopper is the parent who wants to knock out of all their holiday shopping in one deal-addled death run, and ads specifically targeting that demographic have convinced others that it’s possible.
That means Black Friday is now an official event, with people seriously preparing for it. The driving force behind it is the promise of cheap goods, and it’s now simply expected that chaos and all-night lines are just part of the process. It’s because shoppers are going out looking to buy everything in sight that the chaos brews. A cheap digital camera is still a cheap digital camera, even if it’s $50 off, but when demand is artificially high like in a hyped Black Friday scenario, people’s natural instinct to provide for their kids—Mama Bear syndrome, if you like—means getting hold of that crap becomes a life or death situation, whether or not that’s actually the case. In that environment, the perceived value of whatever junk retailers put out for sale shoots through the roof, which helps explain why someone would be willing to sit outside all night and lose all sense of decorum just to save five percent over the sales that typically happen later in the season.
To the people waiting outside in the freezing cold for hours, a half-off Etch-a-Sketch is more valuable than a brick of gold, and they’ll fight for it. Look at the intensity in their eyes. This is the most fascinating nature show of all.
Of course, getting sweet deals feels great. I actually just bought some shirts while I was writing this, and I saved a bundle of cash. But sales happen year round, especially in the online retail world, and no one has frenzies for that. But Black Friday is something different altogether, and it’s all based on our perceptions. First, advertising and blowout door sales (of which any one store may only carry a few items to mitigate losses) get us convinced that there indeed are price Valhallas out there for one day a year. And once you get to the store, the simple presence of hundreds of like-minded individuals pushes our competitive drive into high gear, especially for those concerned with shopping for their children.
Black Friday is what it is because people choose to buy into the hype. That’s fine because it’s their own choice to do so. But it’s interesting to note that the frenzy itself is influenced by a whole host of our own internal triggers that push us to gather what we perceive to be the most valuable resources. That desire for resource acquisition gets even more bloodthirsty when its our kids involved, whether or not the darn kid actually wants the last Dora the Explorer video game on the shelf.
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Read more Evolution Explains: Why We Want To Be Like That Famous Guy.